THE NIGHTMARE (2015)
Directed by Rodney Ascher
There’s nothing more boring than when somebody tells you about a dream they once had. Many times have my eyes glazed over as otherwise interesting people tell me how ‘random’ the mental contents of their night can be. Really, it’s the ultimate ‘you had to be there’ experience. So you can imagine my reservations when asked to review the new documentary from Rodney Ascher (best known for Room 237) which does just that for 80 minutes.
Ok, so smug intro notwithstanding, The Nightmare isn’t about dreams per se. Rather it’s a non fiction horror that is concerned with the widely misunderstood phenomenon of sleep paralysis. This disorder, as described by all 8 subjects, leaves sufferers awake yet simultaneously in a dreamlike state and unable to move their bodies. To make matters creepier, amidst this half state of consciousness many of them experience freaky hallucinations. Having had bouts of it before (most memorably involving Tamara from the US version of The Ring crawling up my bed) I can tell you it’s pretty darn scary. Based on the words of his interviewees statements, given from their homes, this documentary explores the nature of the disorder and briefly skims some ideas where it may come from. These bits are engaging, with a highlight coming from one of the subjects getting so freaked out talking about it he’s got to look over his own shoulder. Though the real meat of Ascher’s new film is in the dramatisations where he visits the kind of visions created by sleep paralysis.
The packed frames bleed with more unnerving imagery than a lot of recent domestic horror efforts. The atmosphere is heavy plus the unconventional angles paired with low lighting ensure the dream sequences retain an otherworldy effect. There’s creepy silhouettes, noises and shadows. As a calling card to the genre, the director shows a lot of potential, and will doubtless make a lot of the audience eager to see him jump into narrative form horror. When this works it really really does. And without hyperbole I’d say some extracts are among the scariest and most visually arresting slices of horror this year. However, despite coming from very different places some patterns soon emerge between the visions, including similar feelings and visions of shadow men with glowing red eyes in their bedrooms at night. And it’s here that The Nightmare suffers.
Unfortunately, as necessitated by the subject-matter, even at its short length the amount of recurrent imagery means the reconstructions feel increasingly tired. The mystery surrounding these crossovers remains intriguing. But in the absence of any authoritative voices it finishes up feeling like a (admittedly) curious banality. There are limited attempts to engage with the scientific literature, though the end product fails to give a sense of catharsis or feel as if it is building towards an intellectual pay-off. Ultimately you’ll leave with more questions than you started with. And though it’s interesting to see discussions of theology, history and other movies it just feel like too little too late. Moreover, the anti-narrative format punctures their lasting impact, since it’s difficult to generate tension around real events that we also know aren’t based on a genuine threat. Yet despite such constraints I’d still recommend this repeatedly unnerving and fairly unique film. Whilst the opportunity may feel slightly missed that doesn’t mean it should be. Though if it keeps you awake after then don’t say you weren’t warned.